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When politics sound the alarm on national security

Workers unload containers at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina.
Workers unload containers at the Port of Charleston in South Carolina. (Lou Krasky/associated Press)
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Monday, February 15, 2010

When White House adviser John Brennan recently accused President Obama's critics of aiding and abetting the enemy, I thought about shipping containers.

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Brennan, who is deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, wrote in USA Today that critics of Obama's handling of the would-be Christmas Day bomber were "misrepresenting the facts to score political points, instead of coming together to keep us safe."

"Politics should never get in the way of national security," Brennan wrote. "Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda."

Port security hasn't been in the news lately, so you could be forgiven for not seeing a connection between Brennan's incendiary charge and shipping containers. But not so long ago, Democratic politicians were absolutely convinced, or so they claimed, that President George W. Bush was putting the nation in grave danger by failing to inspect every container that arrived on our shores in a cargo ship.

Sen. John F. Kerry lambasted Bush during the 2004 campaign for screening only 5 percent of incoming cargo. After Bush's reelection, Sen. Robert Menendez helped shepherd through Congress a bill mandating 100 percent inspection by 2012 and said that anything less "is irresponsible and downright negligent." Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Bennie Thompson -- now chair of the Homeland Security Committee -- piled on.

Bush officials tried to explain: 100 percent screening was not feasible. Trade would grind to a halt. The technology didn't exist, and neither did the money. The smart approach was to screen selectively, based on risk assessments.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), along with many other Democrats, was having none of that. "Republicans have wasted years doing nothing to protect our ports," he fumed in 2006. "They crow a lot about security, but when it comes to nuts and bolts, they've made zero progress. Homeland security starts at our ports, and Democrats will make 100-percent scanning the policy of the United States." Agreed then-Sen. Hillary Clinton: "We simply cannot continue to leave our ports and our cities open to this kind of risk."

Fast-forward to the Obama administration; screening policy hasn't changed. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signaled more than a year ago, and confirmed in December, that the 2012 deadline mandated by law will not be met. The technology doesn't exist, she explained, and neither does the money. In fact, the administration's 2011 budget reduces funding for cargo inspection overseas and for pilot programs aimed at reaching the 100 percent goal.

The reaction from Democrats? Near silence. Rep. Thompson, at the end of a statement praising Obama's homeland security budget, allowed that he was "disappointed" on the matter of container screening. Menendez wrote to Napolitano last March expressing "concern," and a spokesman told me he is writing another letter. A Nadler spokesman said that "since we haven't had an official pronouncement from the administration" that the deadline won't be met, "we haven't made an official response."

Actually, Napolitano told a Senate committee in December that her department "is compelled to seek the time extensions authorized by law with respect to the scanning provision." Hard to see what might be more official. And when she said so, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) -- one of the original advocates of 100 percent screening -- clucked sympathetically that the mandate was, after all, "so monumental" and noted, "Secretary Napolitano, we are very comforted by the fact that you're in charge there."

So was the nation not in imminent danger when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was pursuing a policy identical to Napolitano's, and getting beat up for it? Were Democrats, in Brennan's shocked words, "misrepresenting the facts to score political points?"

They were, of course. But there's a more serious point than noting that both sides do it. Democrats were playing politics with national security -- but they also were raising legitimate questions about al-Qaeda's ability to smuggle in a nuclear device. As Obama reduces the screening budget, the real danger may be the lack of serious oversight from Democrats who once raised alarms.

Similarly, Republicans want to depict Obama as weak on terrorism and gain electoral advantage from that. But their probing helped reveal a stunning failure by the Obama administration to weigh its options before committing the Christmas bomber to the judicial system -- and that, presumably, will lead to a more considered process the next time around.

This kind of jousting may seem childish, in other words, and maybe it does, as Brennan alleged, "serve the goals of al-Qaeda." But it also can help America.

fredhiatt@washpost.com



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